Of course we choose to play with our kids to bring them joy, for engagement and connection, and because it can be downright fun to act like a kid again. But did you know that there is actually neurological research which supports increased learning through play? Let’s explore this a little deeper.
Let’s start with a hypothetical. Think about your job, hopefully you are in a job or career that you love (maybe for you it’s not your job but something you do outside of work,..a sport, a charity, a hobby, but it’s something you love). There are parts of that job you absolutely love and there are parts you do because you have to. Today we are going to pretend that job is engineering, this is where you thrive, particularly when you are designing. However, you also have to be part of meetings, you have to give presentations so the stakeholders of the company are up to date with progress, you have to be part of test groups and hear their commentary about your design. What we commonly see is the tasks you enjoy are the ones you find easier to complete. You feel focused and everything seems to move quickly. However, when doing tasks you don’t particularly enjoy, the day can drag, everything can feel like a bigger obstacle and even the small things can become a nuisance. Why is this?
When we experience something positive that brings us joy, there is a dopamine release in our brain. This dopamine release reinforces the pathway created by the activity, this is your brain saying,”hey this activity is pretty cool.” The more this neural pathway is reinforced with a dopamine release, the more fixed it becomes. The brain literally begins to forge new paths. This is (at a very basic level, because I am not a neuroscientist, just a neuro enthusiast) the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to continue re-map itself depending on what you put effort into.
Now this reinforcement can also happen in a negative way. Think back to when you were in school. Did you ever have that one subject that you just didn’t get. I did! For me math was always a struggle, I remember constantly having to work 2-3 times harder than my peers to understand and appropriately apply the concepts. The more failures I saw or perceived (for example: I took longer to finish the test, or I didn’t get the concepts as easily as my peers, these to me felt like failures), the ‘belief’ that I was not good at math continued to be reinforced. Eventually, I would (and sometimes still do) tell people math isn’t my thing. Because I struggled so much I began to believe math wasn’t my thing, instead of believing maybe I just needed to learn those concepts in a different way. This led to me wanting to avoid math and any career that involved it. Only to realize later in life, it wasn’t the math that was the struggle, but rather the way I was learning it, put simply it didn’t work for me. Doesn’t matter, my brain remapped itself to believe math was in fact the enemy.
So now let’s turn to our children. Their sweet little brains are just starting out, everything to them can feel big, because they have no frame of reference as they navigate and experience the world. Every aspect of their life is essentially learning. From socialization, to athletics, to academics,… their whole world is a series of lessons. But kids are curious, they are playful, and they are physical. They often learn through exploration. For some kids they will thrive in a very structured environment. While many thrive through play. When a child plays (whether that be with dolls, pretending to be a pirate, magna tiles or lining up their toys) they are feeling joy. When you join their little world that joy often grows exponentially (because in their world, at this point in time, you are the ultimate super star, relish this it doesn’t last forever). They feel joy from getting to do any activity they love and getting to connect with you. Now imagine finding a way to work in some academic concepts to that play. Color identification while lining up buses, going on a hunt for sight word while pretending to be pirate, learning about shapes or multistep directions while playing with magna-tiles, now we are chaining something they love with something that in a different context may not be as fun. This is where the concept of neurons that fire together wire together. We are building new pathways by chaining something we know they like with something new. Now this doesn’t mean they will like everything we expose them to if we expose it in this way. However, they will likely enjoy the process of learning it more and will retain more information because the manner in which they are gaining the information.
So next time you’re kiddo is having a hard time with a new concept see if you can come up with a fun playful way to try and learn it. And if creativity isn’t your thing there are tons of resources on youtube, pinterest, teacherpayteachers, instagram, tiktoc, you name it. Don’t be embarrassed to use your resources. Because at the end of the day all you are doing is helping your little one learn new concepts and making memories. That’s the best double whammy!
Below you’ll find some video that help with concepts of Neuroplasticity.
Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina P. Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child. Penguin Random House Publisher, 2011.
More References to come!